Sunday, February 22, 2009

If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention

You've heard, I'm sure, that the company that owns the New Haven Register, Connecticut's second-largest newspaper, has filed for protection and reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Act. 

You may not have heard, however, that under the filing, it asks the court permission to pay out $1.7 million in bonuses to 30 top managers and employees if it meets certain criteria.

If you're surprised by either of these facts, you haven't been paying attention.

What this means is that the companies that run the two largest Connecticut newspapers have declared themselves to be bankrupt. It doesn't necessarily means they are closing anytime soon. 

The Tribune Co., owner of the Hartford Courant, is itself owned by Sam Zell, a multibillionaire real estate investor who knows little or nothing about newspapers. He's proven that. 

The path of the Journal-Register Co. that led, almost as inevitably as a Greek tragedy, to bankruptcy court is much more twisted. I saw much of that from the inside. Grab a drink and get comfortable.

Let me take a little pause here and confess that I am not an unbiased observer of these proceedings. For nearly 15 years, I labored for the Jackson Newspapers, the company that owned the New Haven Register, the Journal-Courier of New Haven and, for a tantalizingly short time, The Hartford Times. That's where I joined the fray.

Through that time, from the inside and later from the outside, I saw this bunch snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory time and again.

When I signed on to The Hartford Times in 1973, it was owned by the Gannett Co., into whose employ I later signed on and, after another nearly 15 years (do you see a pattern here?) took an early retirement a couple of years ago. 

Like many afternoon papers, The Times' circulation and advertising had fallen, due in no small measure to the advent of nightly television news. So, Gannett put it up for sale and the Jackson Newspapers decided to buy it. 

Gannett had cooked the circulation books, so the Jacksons took them to court. The higher a newspaper's circulation, the more it can charge for advertising. Reporters for the Hartford Courant, The Times' longtime rival, read the Jackson's lawsuit against Gannett, found that The Times' circulation was much lower than advertisers had been told, and gleefully published all that, plus the Jackson family's infighting that came out during the suit. Advertisers deserted in droves.

At the same time, the Jacksons tried to bolster circulation in the poorer sections of Hartford. Unfortunately, the people they chose to partner with were some of the most hated merchants who, for example, boosted food prices whenever welfare checks were issued.

All this, plus some dirty fighting by Courant advertising sales people, led inevitably to that black day in October 1976 when The Times' presses ran for the last time.

Some Times employees ended up in New Haven, me among them. 

It was not a wonderful time in New Haven. Lionel Jackson Sr., owner of the Jackson Newspapers, had the managerial style of a sweatshop owner. Pay little, demand much, but show your beneficence at Christmas by giving each worker a turkey. 

As a consequence, some brave souls tried to certify The Newspaper Guild as a bargaining unit for the newsroom and advertising departments. The Jacksons brooked no union interference, the union was stupid and my first two years or so were tough, with no raises, bad working conditions and a cloud hanging over all our heads.

But then came the bright dawn. The Jacksons promised raises and vast improvements if the union were decertified. They were as good as their word. Old man Jackson retired and let his son, Lionel Jackson Jr., known as Stewart, run the papers. The effect was immediate. The Journal-Courier was redesigned, the staff was energized and the paper won dozens of journalism and design awards. It was great time to work there. 

Of course, the Jacksons soon snatched defeat from the very jaws of victory again. The infighting plaguing the Jackson family had never stopped and Stewart Jackson finally decided he had had enough. In 1986, the papers were sold, first to a game show producer named Mark Goodson and then to Ralph Ingersoll II, a rich guy who used junk bonds (think Mike Milken) to put up the $185 million paid for the New Haven papers. 

Ingersoll was chased from his company a couple of years later after a foolish and vain attempt to start a tabloid newspaper in St. Louis. The paper was sold to the Journal-Register Co. of Pennsylvania. 

As the losses mounted because of the crushing debt, the recession that overtook the nation in the late 1980s and many bad business moves, layoffs were inevitable. I survived the first three rounds. In the fourth round, the editor and publisher, Tom Geyer, refused to lay off any more staffers, even under threat of being fired himself. He was sacked on a Monday, and I joined the class on Tuesday. It was October again, this time in 1990.

Since then, I've watched the fray from afar. I still have friends in the papers and they reported on one attempt after another to bolster the bottom line by emaciating the coverage and staff. The Journal Register tried bought more papers, hoping they would bail out the rising debt. It was doomed to failure. 

The Register always had dedicated journalists who try their best to tell stories with words and pictures, no matter what is thrown in their path. That continues to this day, but is hampered by bad management decisions and ineptitude.  They lost a talented city editor a couple of years ago because they didn't know how to integrate the physical newspaper and the Internet.

I have a stake in this bankruptcy -- I get a small pension from the Register. I'm not worried about that. If the place goes bust, the government guarantees the pension. 

What I'm worried about is the staff of the Register. If they bought stock in their company, it's gone. They will have to contend with doing more but with fewer resources. I'm also worried about the city. It needs a daily newspaper. The New Haven Independent, for which I write, is doing a great job covering City Hall and some communities, but it cannot cover all the stories that appear in a daily newspaper. 

I take no glee in seeing JRC go bankrupt -- not that they don't deserve it. The problem is, the fat cats will be fine. They always take care of themselves.

I worry for my friends and colleagues on the paper and I worry that yet again, a light that needs to shine on the politicians and bureaucrats who run our cities and towns will be dimmed.

Until next time...

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